Off the Cuff: April 2012

How much do media owners control the media?

Ed Rendell has it right: Every major city needs a strong investigative ­newspaper—a newspaper of record—and Philadelphia needs the Inquirer. Two months ago, the former governor and mayor put together a who’s-who group of local political and business leaders to take over the paper. Rendell says he’s operating out of civic duty, and I take him at his word. The problem is that no one in the Rendell brain trust knows just what he’s getting into.

Rendell talks about freedom of the press, about putting up a firewall so none of the owners can interfere with the paper’s point of view. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not quite that easy. So as much as the Inquirer needs life injected into its moribund pages, I worry when that energy might come from overzealous owners.

In media, we call it the division between church and state: Ownership should have no direct influence over editorial content. It’s a difficult concept for outsiders to accept. No one believes that I don’t control, or at least influence, what goes into the pages of Philadelphia magazine, and I’ve been fighting this battle of perception forever.

For a time in the ’70s, I was close to Mayor Frank Rizzo, and part of a local team of business advisers he met with. Several times, after Rizzo railed at me over some article about his administration in the magazine, I had exchanges with him like this: “Herb, doesn’t the editor of your magazine work for you?”

“Yes.”

“Then you need to fire him.”

“I can’t do that.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge every newspaper or magazine owner faces.

I can’t try to control my editor’s ­perspective—because then I’d undermine the magazine journalistically. My editor would either quit, or avoid hard stories I might not like, which is a slippery slope bottoming out at an absence of integrity and honesty. But this isn’t a moral argument so much as a practical one: If I controlled what ran in my magazine, it would very soon lose all credibility. We’d be done.

That’s exactly what the Inquirer faces if the Rendell group buys it. As I write this, the group appears to be morphing as terms of the deal are being negotiated; Rendell has asked former cable magnate Gerry Lenfest to take over as chairman. But heavy hitters such as South Jersey political operative George Norcross, businessman Lew Katz and Flyers owner Ed Snider are apparently still involved. Rendell has tried to answer the question of editorial influence by pointing out that Snider is an Ayn Rand Republican, as if having ownership that represents both sides of the political aisle means that editors would feel free. Instead, they’d expect a phone call from some angry owner no matter what perspective they ran with.

Rendell, in fact, is so tone-deaf on the risk that he reportedly invited local union honcho John Dougherty into the ownership mix early on. It’s a stretch to think that Dougherty, or Norcross or Katz or Snider, would be philosophically beholden to keeping hands off. Quite the opposite: Everyone in the Rendell group is used to getting his way.

I happen to believe Ed Rendell really does want to save the Inquirer, and that he believes local ownership is the way to go about reinvigorating the paper. Perhaps now—after strong criticism—he’s beginning to take a lesser role. But it’s still looking like his group will buy the newspaper, and if that happens, Philadelphia will roll right along as a troubled city run by a select few. With one difference: They’ll now be bringing us the news.

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